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Language Death

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Language Death

Why Languages Die and How to Preserve Them?

Humans have an incredible ability to take different sounds and combine them into words to express their feelings, thoughts and ideas. These words are called a language. With the passage of time, languages change because humans are able to adapt to their changing social circumstances. New words are introduced and newer expressions replace the older ones. Similarly, new words are borrowed from foreign languages that at last become a part of the grammatical structure of a language over a period of decades. Another phenomenon is language shift – when people shift to a dominant language by giving up their mother tongue. There is nothing unusual about language shift or language death. However, as compared to the past, language shift and language death is occurring in today’s world at a much faster pace. Judged by the standards of the past, what is happening today is out of the ordinary. Experts say that as many as half of the world’s languages will vanish within the next century. If the speed remains the same, some language in the world will finally fall silent – resembling the mass extinction of some biological species. Biological diversity is under threat and so is the language diversity around the world. Indigenous languages have increasingly been in danger of extinction because languages, like biological species, have lives, bodies and souls and they are eventually subjected to ecological changes as well. They are born and they die in the same way the living creatures do.

Language death means when a language is not spoken by anyone anymore, as David Crystal, a British linguist, has suggested. One day, the last speaker is there and so is the language; the next day, he is dead along with the language. It is fair to say that language death occurs as a consequence of human death. However, there are many other ways in which a language dies. Loss and death of a language happens when people adapt different behaviours and they do not transmit their language to the next generations. Another important point in defining language death is that when there is no appreciation for linguistic diversity, it consequently kills native languages and cultures by labelling them as antediluvian. As a result, the languages are replaced by powerful languages and cultures as prerequisites to modernization and progress.
It is really hard to give a precise number of endangered and dying languages and there are various reasons for this uncertainty. Firstly, not all languages of the world have been discovered yet. Secondly, due to a lack of systematic information-gathering techniques in language surveys, figures are largely based on guesswork. Thirdly, new languages are emerging around the globe every now and then which results in the lack of hard facts. For this reason, the number of discovered, living and dying languages fluctuates. Currently, Ethnologue (2021) claims that there are 7,097 living languages in the world and 3,018 languages are endangered. However, according to the most recent report of UNESCO Atlas of the World Languages in Danger (2021), there are more than 8,000 languages in use around the world. The same report says that after every two weeks, a language somewhere in the world dies while 50-90 percent of the world’s living languages will possibly vanish by the next century.
There are various reasons that contribute to language death. Some languages die in an instant when its speakers die because of war, genocide, pandemic, etc. In other cases, language dies not because its speakers are dead but because they stop using it to avoid suppression. Some languages disappear gradually as the speakers of such languages give up their language for a language of higher prestige and power. These speakers remain bilingual for quite some time but every new generation goes for the prestigious language, leading eventually to the death of their mother tongue. In most cases, the elite in such countries acquire the prestigious languages through schooling and use this knowledge to maintain their positions of power over the majority of citizens who do not know that language. When more and more people in younger generation acquire international languages at the expense of their native tongue, rather than simply using it as second language, they kill their mother tongue, knowingly or unknowingly. Languages also die when they are knowingly and intentionally crushed, especially in younger generations in educational institutions. As a result, children start feeling ashamed of their mother tongue and they eventually stop using it. Similar situation is happening in Pakistani schools where students are literally beaten up and fined for speaking their native language. They begin to consider their native languages inferior and lacking importance. Psychologically, these children fear passing their native tongue to the next generations because they do not want them to suffer in the similar way. In addition, whenever a geographical area is occupied by colonial masters, in most cases, the language of the newcomers gradually replaces the native language because the natives adopt the language of the masters for various political and social reasons. Such adaptation takes place because of financial benefits as well; for example, seeking job opportunities while associating with masters through master’s language.
In Pakistan, it was decided in 1973 (Article 251) that within fifteen years of the promulgation of this constitution, Urdu will be made the official language of Pakistan and English will be used only until arrangements are made for its replacement by Urdu. Even today, there are no positive signs of the implementation of Article 251. English is still the official language of the country. In fact, this has led to a common belief that English, instead of Urdu, is national as well as official language of the country. This situation is alarming because it predicts a terrible fate of the national and native languages.
Languages are dying at an unprecedented pace now, particularly. In today’s globalized world, languages are changing rapidly because of the internet, technology and the dominance of few languages. David Crystal believes that technology has always changed language in whatever shape it has come. When printing and telephone came, they changed language. Similarly, when broadcasting came, it changed language too. When internet came, it gave birth to worldwide web, chat rooms, YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Email, direct mobile message, etc. These new opportunities for communication produce new kinds and styles of languages. Furthermore, people want to assimilate themselves into the popular culture. They are learning new words, phrases and acronyms which they incorporate into their language straight away. Also, English is the prestigious language in all the spheres of life. The number of people speaking English as second language is seemingly more than the number of people speaking it as native language.
The issue of language death is important to be addressed on immediate basis. Quite simply, language gives identity. When a language dies, a part of person’s identity dies simultaneously. In addition, people have an emotional experience and a sense of pride in speaking their mother tongue. Moreover, culture and history are reflected through clothing, food, rituals, beliefs and architecture, but it is the language through which culture and history of a community is passed and understood. A French proverb says that a man who knows two languages is worth two men. Linguistics varieties suggest that human mind is capable of arranging and categorizing different experiences differently. It suggests that people’s perception of the world and their way of thinking is affected by the structure of the language they speak.
Most likely, a language won’t die if its speakers value it, own it, and speak it with dignity. Children should be encouraged to speak in their native tongue by the surviving speakers of the particular language. Besides this, language-maintenance programs on national academic level can prove vital in increasing language proficiency in a particular community, especially in younger generation because the endurance of a language depends on youth. Such steps can keep a language alive. Also, minority languages, other than the majority languages, should be used in media and communication technology. If television, radio programs and newspapers are in native tongue, speakers will get more chances to hear and read their language and so they will somehow start speaking it as well.
To sum up, death of a language leads to the death of a part of human history. Language loss means loss of connection to the past and the amount of wisdom and knowledge accumulated through the years when the language was spoken. For this reason, many linguists and academics are taking measures to preserve endangered languages. Rather than feeling ashamed of speaking in one’s native tongue, it must be a moment of pride for doing so. As a matter of fact, the war between the dominant and minority language will continue as long as humans exist. Majority language considers minority languages as a threat to its hegemony; however; finding a middle ground for their coexistence is the ultimate key to save further languages from dying and to celebrate linguistic diversity around the world.

The writer is pursuing her MPhil in English Literature

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